Skelton, John

, an old English poet, descended from an ancient family in Cumberland, was born towards the latter part of the fifteenth century, and appears to have | studied in both universities. Wood claims him for Oxford, although without conceiving that he was a very honourable addition to his list of worthies. The late Mr. Cole, in his collections for the Athenae Cantabrigienses, is of opinion, that he belongs to Cambridge, partly because he alludes to his being curate of Trompington in 1507, and mentions Svvaffam and Soham, two towns in Cambridgeshire, and partly because there occurs the name of one Skelton, M. A. of Cambridge, in the year 1484. On the other hand, Wood reckons him of Oxford, from the authority of Bale in a manuscript in the Bodleian library and in the preface of Caxton’s Translation of the Æneids he is said to have been “lately created Poet Laureate in the Unyversite of Oxenforde,” and to have been the translator of some of the Latin classics.

This laureatship, however, it must be observed, was not the office now known as pertaining to the court, but was a degree conferred at the university. Churchyard, in the poem prefixed to Skelton’s works, says,

"Skelton wore lawrell wreath,

And past in schoels ye knoe."

This honour appears to have been conferred on him about 1489, and if our author was the Schelton discovered by Mr. Cole, he had now left Cambridge for Oxford; but Mr. Malone says that, a few years after this, he was permitted to wear the laurel publicly at Cambridge, and had been previously honoured by Henry VII. with a grant to wear either some peculiar dress, or some additional ornament in his ordinary apparel. In addition to this, it may be inferred from the titles of some of his works, that he was poet laureate to king Henry VIII.; but Mr. Malone has not been able to discover whether he received any salary in consequence of this office. The origin of the royal laureat is somewhat obscure. According to Mr. Warton, he was only a graduated rhetorician employed in the service of the king, and all his productions were in Latin, until the time of the reformation, which, among other advantages, opened the way to the cultivation of the English tongue.

In the page where Skelton mentions his being curate of Trompington, he informs us that he was at the same time (1507) rector of Diss in Norfolk, and probably had held this living long before.*

*

From a communication obligingly transcribed from bishop Kennel’s Mss. by Henry Ellis, esq. of the British Museum, we learn that " April 14, 1498,

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Jolm Skelton was ordained deacon by Thomas, bishop of London and priest June 9th following. Him being tutor or preceptor to prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII. which is mentioned hereafter, appears by an Ode of Erasmus, “Ue laudibus Britannia regisque Henrici VII. ac rcgiorum liberorum.” See Epist. Tho. Mori et Erascni Rot. 1318, 4to, p. 294. In 1512 Skeiton was presented by Richard, abbot of Glastonbury, to the vicarage of Ualtyng.

Tradition informs us, that his | frequent buffooneries in the pulpit excited general censure. Of what nature those buffooneries were, we cannot now determine, but it is certain that at a much later period the pulpit was frequently debased by irreverent allusions and personal scurrilities. There appear to have been three subjects at which Skeltori delighted to aim his satire; these were, the mendicant friars, Lilly the grammarian, and cardinal Wolsey. From what we find in his works, his treatment of these subjects was coarse enough in style, and perhaps illiberal in sentiment; and there is some reason to think that he did not preserve a due reverence for the forms and pomp of the established religion, which above all other faults would naturally tend to bring him into disgrace and danger. Those who felt his satire would be glad to excite a clamour against his impiety; and it must be allowed that the vices of his age are frequently represented in such indelicate language, as to furnish his enemies with the very plausible reproach, that he was not one of those reformers who begin with themselves.

But although we can now have very little sympathy with the injured feelings of the begging friars, it is not improbable that some of his poems or ballads might very justly rouse the vigilance of his diocesan, the bishop of Norwich, who, Mr. Warton thinks, suspended him from his functions. Anthony Wood asserts, that he was punished by the bishop for “having been guilty of certain crimes, as most poets are.” According to Fuller, the crime of " most poets’‘’ in Skelton’s case, was his keeping of a concubine, which yet was at that time a less crime in a clergyman than marriage. Skelton, on his death-bed, declared that he conscientiously considered his concubine as his wife, but was afraid to own her in that light; and from this confession, and the occasional liberties he has taken with his pen, in lashing the vices of the clergy, it is not improbable that he had imbibed some of the principles of the reformation, but had not the courage to avow them, unless under the mask of such satire as might pass without judicial censure.

With respect, however, to Wolsey, his prudence | appears to have deserted him, as he felt bold enough to Stigmatize the personal character of that statesman, then irt the plenitude of his power. Whether such attacks were made in any small poems or ballads, or only in his poem of “Why come ye not to Court?” is not certain, but the latter does not appear to have been printed until 1555, and was too long to have been easily circulated in manuscript. Wolsey, however, by some means or other, discovered the abuse and the author, and ordered him to be apprehended. Skelton took refuge in the sanctuary of Westminster-abbey, where the abbot, Islip, afforded him protection until his death, which took place June 21, 1529, not long before the downfall of his illustrious persecutor. He was interred in St. Margaret’s church-yard, with the inscription,

J. Sceltonus Vates Pierius hie situs est.” Skelton appears to have been a more considerable personage, at one time at least, than his contemporaries would have us to believe. It is certain that he was esteemed a scholar, and that his classical learning recommended him to the office of tutor to prince Henry, afterwards king Henry VIII., who, at his accession, made him royal orator, an office so called by himself, the nature of which is doubtful, unless it was blended with that of laureat. As to his general reputation, Erasmus, in a letter to Henry VIII. styles him “Britannicarum literarum decus et lumen,” a character which must have either been inferred from common opinion, or derived from personal knowledge. Whatever provocation he gave to the clergy, he was not without patrons who overlooked his errors and extravagancies for the sake of his genius, and during the reign of Henry VII. he had the enviable distinction of being almost the only professed poet of the age. Henry Algernon Percy, fifth earl of Northumberland, one of the very few patrons of learned men and artists at that time, appears to have entertained a high regard for our author. In a collection of poems magnificently engrossed on vellum for the use of this nobleman, is an elegy on the death of the earl’s father, written by Skelton. This volume is now in the Bullish Museum, but the elegy may be seen in Skelton’s works, and in Dr. Percy’s Relics.

When a favourite author betrays grossnessand indecency, it is usual to inquire how much of this is his own, and how much may be referred 19 the licentiousness of his age? | Warton observes, that it is in vain to apologize for the coarseness, obscenity, and scurrility of Skelton, by saying-, that his poetry is tinctured with the manners of his age, and adds, that Skelton would have been a writer without decorum at any period. This decision, however, is not more justly passed on Skelton than it ought to be on others, whom it has been the fashion to vindicate by an appeal to the manners of their age. The manners of no age can apologize for the licentiousness of the writer who descends to copy them. There are always enough in an age that has a court, a clergy, and a people, to support the dignity of virtue, and to assert the respect due to public decency. If we knew more minutely of the manners of our country in these remote periods, it would probably be found that licentiousness has, upon the whole, been more discouraged than patronized by the public voice.

Although it is impossible to lessen the censure which Skelton incurred among his contemporaries, and immediate successors, it is but fair to say that his indelicacies are of no very seductive kind, that they are obscured by cant words and phrases no longer intelligible, or intelligible but to few, and that the removal of them is a matter of less trouble and less injury to an edition of his works than his biographers, who have copied one another, would insinuate. As to his poetry, Mr. Warton’s character may in general be followed with safety, and ought to be preserved with the respect due to so excellent a critic.

Skelton’s characteristic vein of humour is capricious and grotesque. If his whimsical extravagancies ever move our laughter, at the same time they shock our sensibility. His festive levities are not only vulgar and indelicate, but frequently want truth and propriety. His subjects are often as ridiculous as his metres: but he sometimes debases his matter by his versification. On the whole, his genius seems better suited to low burlesque, than to liberal and manljr satire. It is supposed by Caxton, that he improved our language; but he sometimes affects obscurity, and sometimes adopts the most familiar phraseology of the common people.” After quoting some lines from the “Boke of Colin Cloute,” Mr. Warton remarks, that these are in the best manner of his petty measure, which is made still more disgusting by the repetition of the rhymes, but allows that in the poem called “The Bouge of Court,” or the Rewards of a Court, the author, by “adopting the more grave and | stately movement of the seven-lined stanza, has shewn himself not alwajs incapable of exhibiting allegorical imagery with spirit and dignity.

Skelton, however, is very unequal, although his natural bias, and what he seems most anxious to revert to, is comic buffoonery. That the author of the “Prayers to the Trinity,” and the lines on the death of Lord Percie, could have written the “Tunning of Elinour Humming,” is almost incredible. His multiplied repetition of rhymes, arbitrary abbreviations -of the verse, cant expressions, hard and sounding words newly coined, and patches of Latin and French, Warton supposes to be peculiar, though not exclusively to our author; but his new-coined words, and Latin and French phrases, occur so often, that other critics appear to have been too hasty in asserting that he wrote only for the mob. There is occasionally much sound sense, and, it is to be feared, much just satire on the conduct of the clergy, which we know was such as to justify the plunder of the church by Henry VIII. in the eyes of the people at large. As a poet, however, Skeltou contributed very little to the improvement of the poetical style, and seems more disposed to render versification ridiculous. His vein of humour is often copious and original, and had it been directed to subjects of legitimate satire, and regulated by some degree of taste, more credit would have been given to what he insinuates, that he was disliked and reviled for having honestly, though bluntly, exposed the reigning follies of his day. Mrs. Cooper calls him, with some degree of truth, “the restorer of invention in English poetry;” and by Bradshavv, a very indifferent poet of the fifteenth century, he is complimented as the inventive Skelton.

His works have hitherto been ushered into the world without much care. It yet remains to explain his obscurities, translate his vulgarisms, and point, his verses. The task would require much time and labour, with perhaps no very inviting prospect of recompense. Besides the works published in the late edition of the English poets, Mr. Kitson has given a list of pieces, the most of which are easily accessible, and would have been added to the late collection, had they appeared to throw any important light on the character of the author, or of his age. But Mr. Ritson thinks it utterly incredible that the “Nigramansii,” described by Warton, as printed by Wynkin de Worde in 1504, ever existed. 1

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English Poets, 1810, 21 vols. 8vo.

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